Bug-infested IT systems costing taxpayers hundreds of millions

May 18, 2014

By Michael Smyth

The bugs that infected the government’s welfare computer system aren’t just causing headaches for stressed-out social workers.

They’re also causing damage to the wallets of tapped-out B.C. taxpayers.

Christy Clark’s Liberal government says it has spent $182 million on its malfunctioning Integrated Computer Management system.

But the union that represents workers forced to wrestle with the cumbersome, buggy software ­­— when it’s actually “working” — figures the cost is higher than that.

“I would say — I’m going to be conservative — that about $210 million-plus has been put into this system,” said Darryl Walker, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union.

He said the union estimates that amount from tracking years of troubleshooting, overhauls and system reboots the government has ordered in an effort to get ICM to work properly.

The rescue missions have included flying in dozens of government staffers to Victoria to work on the system, paying for their meals and putting them up in hotels.

“Much of it is work that’s also been done offshore,” Walker said.

“They just put out this line, ‘Everything is fine. We’re working on it, don’t worry about it. Another $20 million and that should fix it. Another $16 million and that should fix it.’

“Our frustration is sky-high.”

The ICM system was supposed to streamline management of computer files across ministries that care for poor children, disabled people and troubled families racked by addiction, mental illness and violence.

But it’s been plagued with problems for three years, and crashed completely earlier this month, a situation deplored by the province’s independent watchdog for kids.

“These aren’t just hiccups ­— this has been a disaster,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who worries the broken computer system could leave kids in violent homes at even greater risk.

Technology Minister Andrew Wilkinson said the government is determined to fix the problems.

“They’re sorting out the glitches in this thing,” he said. “We have guarded optimism, but I’m not satisfied until it’s working perfectly.”

But the union said social workers are now far behind in their case loads, and wonder if the system will be operating properly before May 28 — the next “welfare Wednesday” distribution of income-assistance cheques.

“There could be some chaos,” said union official Doug Kinna, who told The Province newspaper two years ago the computer system should be scrapped.

“They’re just throwing good money after bad,” he said.

But this is just the latest in a series of government computer bungles that have cost taxpayers millions. Others include:

ICBC: The public auto insurer’s computers misidentified vehicle makes, models and options for at least six years — probably longer — costing the corporation $110 million in mistaken premiums.

“I’ve never seen anything like it on this scale before,” Serge Corbeil, of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, said last month.

“Auto insurance is a data-driven business. If you have the wrong data, you can lose your shirt.”

JUSTIN: The justice-system database of police investigations and court documents had poor security and was wide open to attacks from hackers, B.C.’s auditor-general concluded in a report last year.

The government cut off 800 user accounts after the independent watchdog ripped the ministry’s “lapse in the quality of IT leadership.”

BCESIS: The B.C. Education Ministry junked the $100-million student-records system despised by teachers for being unreliable and poorly designed.

A replacement system could cost another $90 million, the government said.

Throw in the E-Health system (over budget by almost $100 million) and Carenet ($2.3 million lost when contractors filed for bankruptcy) and the Opposition sees a pattern.

“It highlights the Liberals’ inability to manage the province’s IT projects,” said NDP critic Carole James, who ripped the government’s “blatant mismanagement of valuable taxpayers’ dollars.”

Even Wilkinson, one of the Liberals’ most fiercely partisan cabinet ministers, admits the critics have a point.

“Big computer systems are subject to glitches,” he said. “We have experienced some in the recent past.”

Then he adds bluntly: “I’m not satisfied with that.”

B.C. taxpayers should feel the same way.

msmyth@theprovince.com

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